Midway into Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia — based on James Ellroy’s speculative take on the grisly, still-unsolved murder of titularly nicknamed would-be starlet Elizabeth Short — investigating officer Josh Harnett watches his partner’s girl (Scarlett Johansson) running a bath. In voyeuristic P.O.V., we see the initials “B.D.” scarred into her back — ostensibly for her gangster ex Bobby DeWitt, thematically for the all-permeating Black Dahlia, but really, I suspect, for Brian De Palma, whose initials are everywhere else on the movie.
Ellroy’s are faint, his sprawling novel refashioned, subplots dropped and merged, as a lean whodunit with a flashback twist for every stray detail. The main casualty’s the supposedly motivating element of obsession: shot/reverse shot between Short’s screen tests (showcasing Mia Kirshner’s shaky lucidity) and Harnett’s furrowed-brow reactions is a poor substitute; Aaron Eckhart is severely circumscribed as his partner.
But hey, less baggage for De Palma’s movieland orgy. He’s always had a polymorphously perverse response to a director’s toybox, and his plunge into Hollywood Babylon tingles all over: sepia-soaked design and venetian blind-filtered sunlight for atmosphere; shock cuts, omniscient crane shots, and gustatory slo-mo for thrills; mirrored surfaces and frames balancing a white-clad good woman and a black-clad dangerous woman for psychology; process-flaunting exposition — check the fisheyed walking tour introducing the family of the Dahlia’s rich bitch facsimile (eager beaver Hilary Swank) — for staving off boredom.
More than showboating, Dahlia’s seam-bursting movie-ness serves characters enmeshed in Hollywood(land) lore. The murder’s jigsaw-tailored circumstances (revealed with teasing rapidity) form a quintessentially De Palmian spectatorship-participation feedback loop: it’s the movie of the year for people who like to watch. Opens September 15